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Activist Claire McClinton stands for a portrait outside of City Hall in Flint, Michigan on October 20, 2020

Activist Claire McClinton stands for a portrait outside of City Hall in Flint, Michigan on October 20, 2020. (Photo: Seth Herald/AFP via Getty Images)

'Unconscionable': Despite Outcry Over Lead Poisoning, New Asphalt Plant Approved in Flint, Michigan

"Our community, our families, our children, cannot and should not take more chemical pollution."

Kenny Stancil

Less than a week after a federal judge approved a $626 million settlement for thousands of lead poisoning victims in Flint, Michigan, state officials on Monday rubber-stamped an air permit for a new asphalt plant in the city despite strong opposition from residents and advocates, who denounced the decision as another manifestation of environmental injustice.

"The plant will be an additional source of air pollution in a community of color that already has one of the highest rates of asthma hospitalizations in the state."

According to Earthjustice, "The Ajax asphalt plant will be located in Genesee Township, less than 1,600 feet from public housing in a low-income Black neighborhood in Flint that is already overwhelmed by high levels of air toxics, particulate matter from the concentration of industrial activity. Nearby facilities include Genesee Power Station, Universal Coating, Inc., Ace-Saginaw Paving Company, Buckeye Terminals, Superior Metals, RJ Industrial Recycling, and many others."

"A coalition of many Flint-based groups have been fighting the issuance of this permit" by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), Earthjustice said in a statement. "In response to the comments of this coalition and other advocates, EGLE changed the draft permit."

Mona Munroe-Younis, executive director of the Environmental Transformation Movement of Flint, told MLive on Monday that "I haven't seen the permit yet and am interested to know if EGLE made any changes based on the public outcry against the permit."

"I'm frustrated and disappointed that EGLE would issue the permit before having all the information they need to do so, namely the cumulative impact analysis," Munroe-Younis added. "The state of Michigan should know that their civil rights obligations require them to consider the health impacts on already environmentally burdened, predominantly Black communities. We'll have more to say once we see the permit."

MLive reported that EGLE "said the green light for the project comes with 'a host of site-specific conditions and restrictions [that] provide safeguards to ensure compliance with the law and to better protect the community.'"

Opponents of the asphalt plant, however, remain unconvinced.

"It is unconscionable that EGLE allowed another source of pollution, including lead and other air toxics, in our community," Deborah Hawley, director of the St. Francis Prayer Center, said in a statement. "Our community, our families, our children, cannot and should not take more chemical pollution."

Flint has been hit especially hard by environmental injustices that are inseparable from deregulation and austerity. Seven years ago, a contaminated water crisis began when an "unelected emergency manager" appointed by then-Gov. Rick Snyder (R) made the cost-cutting decision to switch the city's tap water source from Detroit's municipal supply to the Flint River, whose highly corrosive water caused aging pipes to leak lead into thousands of homes.

"We demand Ajax and EGLE... pause the construction and operation of this asphalt plant," Hawley added, "until more can be learned about its impacts."

Nayyirah Shariff, director of Flint Rising, said that "this permitting decision perpetuates a legacy of environmental racism in Flint and in Michigan." Shariff rebuked Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration for "not following through on its commitment to environmental justice."

While EGLE says that Ajax met the minimum standards necessary to obtain an air permit, agency director Liesl Clark sent a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Monday "seeking guidance and support in providing tools and strategies to improve public health in at-risk communities," MLive reported.

The licensing process, Clark wrote in her letter to the EPA, "highlights the limitations of federal and state environmental regulations in addressing the concerns raised by Flint residents."

As MLive noted:

The state said it received more than 340 comments from residents, environmental advocates, and government agencies during an extended 83-day comment period, overwhelmingly opposed to the facility but said most objections were outside the scope of EGLE's authority to consider.

"It is vital that air permitting rules ensure consistent, clear rules so that they are not subject to arbitrary decisions," Clark said in her letter to EPA, which she invited to conduct an additional review of the Ajax permit. "But it is abundantly clear in this situation, and many others across the nation, that the tools we are given to protect particularly distressed communities should be strengthened."

Earthjustice managing attorney Debbie Chizewer said that EGLE's decision "came even after our clients, EPA, and HUD all submitted comments raising serious civil rights concerns about the disparate impact that would result to a low-income, predominantly Black community."

"EGLE should... put a stop to the environmental injustice that continues to oppress this community."

Neighborhood residents have called for, and the EPA has recommended, a study of the cumulative impacts of the projected emissions from the proposed asphalt plant as well as the pollution emanating from other industrial facilities in the area.

On behalf of coalition members Flint Rising, Environmental Transformation Movement of Flint, and the St. Francis Prayer Center, Earthjustice and the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center have submitted a Title VI civil rights complaint to the EPA's Office of Civil Rights, requesting an investigation of EGLE's actions in this permitting process and a comprehensive review of the state environmental agency's compliance with civil rights laws more broadly. 

"The draft air permit, or permit to install, for this hot mix asphalt plant was gravely deficient under the Clean Air Act and under civil rights laws," said Nick Leonard, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Center. "The plant will be an additional source of air pollution in a community of color that already has one of the highest rates of asthma hospitalizations in the state."

"This asphalt plant," he added, "should not have been permitted and should not be constructed or operated until the cumulative risks or impacts of adding [pollution to] this burdened Flint community are properly considered."

Munroe-Younis, meanwhile, stressed that her group and others in the community "will keep building power and fighting for access to clean air and a healthy environment."

Monday marks the beginning of a 90-day period in which anyone may appeal EGLE's decision in Genesee Circuit Court. According to MLive, Flint city council members have "approved a resolution authorizing city officials to do all things necessary to object to the air permit."

The American Federation of Government Employees Local 704, a union representing nearly 1,000 EPA employees in six states across the Midwest, including Michigan, emphasized that "the release of toxic contaminants in disadvantaged communities already overburdened by pollution is no longer acceptable."

"EGLE should protect the families in Flint and Genesee Township from any further toxic releases into their community," Local 704 said in a statement, "and put a stop to the environmental injustice that continues to oppress this community."

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